The Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre, grade II listed in 2009, is the centrepiece of the complex of buildings designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon between 1958 and 1968 for the Leeds University campus.
From 1960-1970, as the post-war generation grew up, Britain saw a great expansion in education. The number of students (and universities) nearly doubled. This was a challenge for university architects. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who had just completed the acclaimed Golden Lane Estate, were engaged as Master Planners at the University of Leeds to oversee in-house architect Geoffrey Wilson and provide expertise to the expansion of the campus. They produced a plan in two phases. An initial report recorded their enquiries and research into the existing campus and set out their vision for the new campus. It summarized the anticipated problems and posed solutions, specifying the required materials, time, space and costs. A second Development Plan focused on the maths and science precinct and features what became the Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre.
Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's design was a forward-looking city within a city, and in many ways an important trial run for what they went on to do with the Barbican estate. The Development Plans saw them experimenting with ideas about the principles of urban design, the integration of community and environment into a cohesive whole, and the most economic and adaptable use of space. They generated interest at an international level and were hugely influential to the modern movement as a body of research and a definitive model for the modern university campus.
The Roger Stevens building contains 25 tiered lecture theatres with different capacities, a refectory and reprographics facilities. The exterior is futuristic and visually striking. Students compare it to a church organ, a robot or a car engine. The refectory overlooks a lake which is more than ornamental - it was also designed to provide air conditioning for the building, an idea which Chamberlin, Powell and Bon developed on a bigger scale with the Barbican Lake. For some time in the 1970s the exterior bore graffiti reading “brain machine” and it's true that the building’s unconventional configuration of space does require a bit of thought to learn its signage and colour coding. The layout is actually deceptively simple: two gently sloping staircases link the lecture theatres and each row of seats has its own individual door, ensuring lectures are not interrupted by latecomers. Elain Harwood, in her book on Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, comments that the buildings “proved to be as adaptable as Chamberlin had promised, with the walls moved ad infinitum and service ducts coping with increased loadings”. In 2016 the University re-configured several lecture theatres to allow collaborative working and shared technology. As no other buildings in the precinct have entrances at ground level, the open space was underused for some years. To address this, in 2013 the University's Facilities Directorate, Student Union and staff collaborated to create a sustainable edible garden with wildflower areas, soft fruit hedgerows, insect houses and pocket habitats.
Its listed status ensures the Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre's future is safe. It's another divisive building but maybe it's just waiting for the rest of us to catch up with it.